‘Super-tipping points’ could trigger cascade of climate action

Small interventions on electric cars and plant-based meat could unlock rapid emissions cuts, say experts

Three “super-tipping points” for climate action could trigger a cascade of decarbonisation across the global economy, according to a report.

Relatively small policy interventions on electric cars, plant-based alternatives to meat and green fertilisers would lead to unstoppable growth in those sectors, the experts said.

But the boost this would give to battery and hydrogen production would mean crucial knock-on benefits for other sectors including energy storage and aviation.

Urgent emissions cuts are needed to avoid irreversible climate breakdown and the experts say the super-tipping points are the fastest way to drive global action, offering “plausible hope” that a rapid transition to a green economy can happen in time.

The tipping points occur when a zero-carbon solution becomes more competitive than the existing high-carbon option. More sales lead to cheaper products, creating feedback loops that drive exponential growth and a rapid takeover. The report, launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said the three super-tipping points would cut emissions in sectors covering 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Speedy action is vital to help avoid triggering disastrous tipping points in the climate system. Scientists said recently that global heating had driven the world to the brink of multiple tipping points with global impacts, including the collapse of Greenland’s ice cap and a key current in the north Atlantic.

“With time running out, there is a need for action to be targeted,” said Mark Meldrum, at the consultancy Systemiq, which produced the report with partners including the University of Exeter, UK. Each super-tipping point crossed raises the chance of crossing others, he said. “That could set off a cascade to steer us away from a climate catastrophe.”

The tipping point for electric vehicles is very close with sales soaring, the report says. Setting dates around the world for the end of sales of fossil-fuel powered vehicles, such as the 2030 date set for new vehicles by the UK and 2035 in China, drives further growth, the report adds.

This scale-up means the batteries used will become cheaper and these can be deployed as storage for wind and solar power, further accelerating the growth of renewables. More green energy means lower electricity bills, in turn making heat pumps even more cost-effective.

The second super-tipping point is setting mandates for green fertilisers, to replace current fertilisers, which are produced from fossil gas. Ammonia is a key ingredient and can be made from hydrogen produced by renewable energy, combined with nitrogen from the air.

Governments requiring a growing proportion of fertiliser to be green will drive a scale-up and cost reductions in the production of green hydrogen, the report says. That then supports long-distance aviation and shipping, and steel production, which will rely on hydrogen to end their carbon emissions. Mandates are being considered with India, for example, targeting 5% green fertiliser production by 2023–24 and 20% by 2027–28.

The third super-tipping point is helping alternative proteins to beat animal-based proteins on cost, while at least matching them on taste. Meat and dairy cause about 15% of global emissions. Public procurement of plant-based meat and dairy replacements by government departments, schools and hospitals could be a powerful lever, the report says.

Increasing uptake would cut the emissions from cattle and reduce the destruction of forests for pasture land. A 20% market share by 2035 would mean 400m-800m hectares of land would no longer be needed for livestock and their fodder, equivalent to 7-15% of the world’s farmland today, the report estimated. That land could then be used for the restoration of forests and wildlife, removing CO2 from the air.

Tipping points already passed within countries include electric car sales in Norway and the plunge in coal-powered electricity in the US in the past decade.

“We need to find and trigger positive socioeconomic tipping points if we are to limit the risk from damaging climate tipping points,” said Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter. “This non-linear way of thinking about the climate problem gives plausible grounds for hope: the more that gets invested in socioeconomic transformation, the faster it will unfold – getting the world to net zero greenhouse gas emissions sooner.”



COVER PHOTO: The tipping point for electric vehicles is close as sales continue to soar, the report says. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images